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The garden is more than just a bunch of plants in the soil

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Alys Fowler Alys Fowler | 08:21 UK time, Sunday, 6 February 2011

alys' garden

My garden last spring

Currently my days are taken up with journeys, endless back and forths. I rush through the crumbling suburbs of east Birmingham to visit the hospital. We watch TV, the two of us cramped on that thin bed, trying to pretend it's all normal. The time is too brief. I rush home to shut up the chickens.

A lot has happened over the last few months. I woke up this morning and contemplated all that change. It seems a lot all at once. Finally I am having time to reflect on everything. I rarely just lay in bed, but it felt right, even the dog agreed. So I let myself off and just drifted through thoughts.

And one recurring thought is that I am probably turning into a fruitcake. Though I'd like to think I am a nice, luxurious one with a big thick layer of icing. For instance, I went to the allotment and stuck my fingers into the freezing soil and sat there staring at the world. The soil is good, rich soil. It was cold and I looked, frankly, ridiculous but it grounded me for a few minutes. Then I attacked an old blackcurrant bush with a little too much vengeance. It was not a nice sight. And once the poor bush was up-turned I felt a great deal of remorse that I had been so angry at it for being unproductive, though grateful for the new space. It actually made me cry. See I'm a fruitcake.

My daily walks to the allotment are more than just exercise for me and the dog. They have become a necessity. I fret if I think I won't get there. I obsess over what I could and should put in. Do we want to eat Turkish rocket? (It would work well in the shadier spots). How many raspberries are enough? Should I make the polytunnel smaller, it is mad to build a self-watering one, will I actually get to do it?

If I were to fall into a pop psychology trap, my allotment's role has become all too obvious. I have taken to nurturing the soil as if it was a person. I have ordered the shed, drawn plans, made lists as if somehow this battle plan might save us.

I got an email about an event in April and I unraveled. How can I be asked to think that far ahead? Then the chillis germinate, the coriander in its little pretty 1950's sugar cup grows stronger, faster, the Saracenia flava starts to flower, the hellebores unfurl and the snowdrops sparkle. Spring is coming whether I am ready or not. I am so glad that the greater picture goes on regardless. It spins and awakens. It grows and gives forth. And my fingers in the soil register how alive it all is.

I've been reading the wonderful Joan Gussow's 'Growing, Older'. Gussow is, I guess, the Joy Larkcom of the American organic movement. She's a nutritionist and gardener. This book is her autobiography about losing her husband, her passion for the environment and her Hudson garden that floods regularly, but still provides her with all her food. She is 82 years old and makes growing old look like one of the most pleasurable activities. The book has some wonderful passages. It's truly hard to put this one down and yet I have that feeling that comes with all good books that I'd like to eke it out for as long as possible.

Anyhow there's this bit where she's wondering why she doesn't feel alone after her husband has died. That sort of hit me. I think anyone who loves their garden, however big or small, will have had one of those moments, so hard to explain to non-gardeners. That the garden, in its whole sense, is so much more than just a bunch of plants in the soil, that it literally roots your sense of well-being to the world around you. Joan:

"That no such loss occurred, that I didn't fell bereft of interaction puzzled me and became another mystery to explore. After years of self-examination, I stumble across another reality that had been staring me in the face all along. As a gardener, I had life all around me. It's just that most of it was not human. As it turned out, the many other species - especially those that appeared invited or uninvited in my garden - were central not only to the maintenance of the planet but to the happiness of my life."

I doubt this book will get many reviews here as Gussow unfortunately is just not known about, but I urge anyone with a love of the earth to read this one.

Learn more about Joan Gussow:

Video: Joan Gussow discusses nutrition, her life, and her new book, Growing, Older -
Joan Dye Gusson -
About Joan's garden -


  • Comment number 1.

    You are so right that gardens have a life of their own and can nurture you as much as you nurturing them. I hope the life in yours gives you hope and comfort in what must be a horrible time.

  • Comment number 2.

    A very lovely post - and Im glad its not just me that thinks 'what are you asking me about to months time weekend feels like 3 birthdays away'. I'll look that book up, thanks...and I hope whatever it is that takes you to the hospital is sorted soon

  • Comment number 3.

    So much change in the last few months for you, spring on its way with all the pressure it seems to pile into the mind of the gardener. Future events laden with the expectations of others. And someone you care for in hospital.

    Look after yourself, Alys. A holiday might help... Everything can wait, even the allotment.

  • Comment number 4.

    The garden is very often a place of refuge and place to 'lose' yourself for a time. It is the only place where I think about nothing other than what I'm doing - a spot of weeding, sowing seeds in the greenhouse or snipping and cutting overgrown or straggly plants.
    Rushing around in our busy lives, we sometimes forget about our spiritual well being, which often takes a back seat. Just a little time out now and again often helps.

  • Comment number 5.

    Alys, what a beautiful and honest piece of writing. May your garden continue to offer you hope and solace, and may your loved one come home soon.

  • Comment number 6.

    your blog has moved me more than I can say, like you I feel so privileged to have been born a gardener,without which I could not have survived.I so hope the solace you find in your garden will help you through this difficult time

  • Comment number 7.

    So sorry to hear that you're having to balance your life between hospital visits, work, gardening and, well, life. I know exactly what that's like and the hard decisions required to work out what you should be concentrating on at any one time. I hope you draw strength from your garden and your friends.

  • Comment number 8.

    I wish that I had the same love for gardening that you do. Lots of love! xx

  • Comment number 9.

    ... a very lovely FRUITCAKE. so sorry it has to be so hard.

  • Comment number 10.

    You write so beautifully - and as someone else commented, its incredibly moving. Sending Love and strengh to you. Hope you are still TWITTERING as I am ready to enter the 21st century now and get stuck in! Sxx

  • Comment number 11.

    Sorry life is so hard, you are right in so many ways.....Time is too brief, cherish every moment I forget to more often than I should and you've reminded me.

    Keep loving the garden and keep writing its good for the heart and mind and I love reading your work.

    Thinking of you.

  • Comment number 12.

    There is nothing like an allotment to keep you 'grounded' and there's nothing like the worry having a loved one in hospital. I'm enjoying catching up with your blog posts and look forward to seeing you flourish again this year.

    That blackcurrant bush had it coming :)

  • Comment number 13.

    Praying for you both, Alys

    Bless you


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